Three Pillars or new ironic columns? Why splintering student government is not the answer

Nicholas Goldrosen

Behind Lawrence Hall and the Williams College Museum of Art stand the “ironic columns,” so named because their Ionic capitals in truth support nothing but the air above them. With the Task Force on Student Governance’s pending “Three Pillars” plan to abolish College Council (CC), I worry that these three pillars might turn out to be all too much like the ironic columns: ornate in appearance but unable to bear the weight of the work they’re tasked with.

The defects of this plan are both structural and procedural. The plan splinters the autonomy and power of student government into three less effective parts and weakens the prospects for effective advocacy for students. Procedurally, I believe the student body is owed a more proactively transparent look into the task force’s process — ­the research they did, discussions they had and work of its (paid) members. This plan’s intentions, and much of its content, are good — efforts to make funding more equitable and accessible and to broaden committee participation, for example. Moreover, we owe the task force members our gratitude for committing their Winter Studies to such a large and thankless project. 

The chief weakness of the plan is its creation of a separate advocacy body, the Williams Student Union, and removing the funding and appointment powers to separate bodies. Student government at the College has power to advocate for students through three main channels: money, appointments and direct advocacy. This plan undercuts the prospects of using all three by siloing them into separate organizations. In this ideal relationship, a central body can use these powers in tandem to achieve its goals. Say, for example, that student government is rightly concerned with increasing support for students of underrepresented identities on campus. It could use its funding power to increase support to Minority Coalition groups (as CC has done). It could use its appointment power to select a student chair for the committee on educational affairs who’ll advocate for course offerings that support diversity, equity and inclusion. Finally, its executive officers could serve as points of contact to advocate for these concerns to senior staff. 

However, if separate bodies are supposed to advocate for student concerns, fund and appoint, no such coordinated effort could ever occur. The members of the Union would have no power to fund, no power to appoint and indeed “no executive or bureaucratic power,” per the proposed constitution. There would be no individual student leaders who could liaise with and advocate to the administration as the CC executive board could. Furthermore, I’m not sure, given the more controversial of CC’s meetings this past year, how less leadership could be seen as the correct solution. 

The members of TABLE, the group for committee chairs, will be detached from the funding body — FAST — and the advocacy of the Union. These appointments are not simply seat-filling, but should be conceptualized as a core part of student government’s advocacy powers. Finally, FAST would be siloed away from the rest of student government. FAST would have some set of its decisions subject to reversal by a group of administrators, bafflingly titled an “advisory panel.”  CC has repeatedly faced critiques that it fails to represent students and is instead too aligned with administrative priorities of the school; what sense, then, does it make to appoint a panel of administrators to overrule the decisions of its successor? 

It may be that the task force has considered these points, debated them, researched peer institutions, and thus reached its proposal. Yet the student body would not know that. There has not been a disseminated report of the group’s work and process save for the final proposal. Furthermore, the task force has publicly stated that it sees no need for a minimum turnout for this referendum — all it will need to pass is a majority, whether that is out of 20 or 2000 students voting. I fear that this process seizes on the (rightful) fervor to change CC and substitutes that for a more considered and transparent process. CC does need change, and perhaps to be reconstituted. Yet the answer to our student government not using its powers wisely and properly should not be to divest ourselves of those powers by splitting them into a decentralized structure that will ultimately fail to advocate for students. 

Nicholas Goldrosen ’20 is a political science and mathematics major from Brooklyn, N.Y.